James P. Boyce, Southern’s first president, was born on January 11, 1827 at Charleston, South Carolina. Boyce matriculated at Brown University in 1845. He quickly became a respected student and popular peer. Soon after entering Brown, Boyce professed his faith in Christ. Soon after his conversion, he fell in love at a friend’s wedding. Just two days after meeting Lizzie Ficklen, Boyce asked her to marry him. Taken aback, Lizzie rebuffed her suitor, but only for a time. The two wed in December 1848 and together raised two daughters.
Boyce served as editor of the Southern Baptist after graduation. In 1849 he entered Princeton Theological Seminary, where he completed the three-year course in just two years. He then served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Columbia, South Carolina until 1855, when he received an offer from South Carolina’s Furman University to join its faculty. He accepted and became a professor of theology in 1855.
Though Boyce enjoyed teaching at Furman, he wanted to begin a Baptist seminary for southerners. He presented the initial educational philosophy for a theological school in his famous 1856 inaugural address on “Three Changes in Theological Education.” With the help of fellow Southern Baptists, Boyce brought his vision to life. Southern Seminary opened in Greenville in 1859.
For almost thirty years, Boyce served as Southern’s de facto president, although his official title was chairman of the faculty. He did not take the title of president until 1888, a year before his passing. Throughout his career, Boyce proved himself a skilled fundraiser and administrator, equally able to produce a financial miracle and quell a fractious moment. In the midst of continual hardship, Boyce devoted his time and his finances to Southern, all while he taught classes, led a Sunday School class at Broadway Baptist Church, and served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention for seven consecutive terms from 1872 to 1879, and in 1888. He also found time to write a catechism and a book, Abstract of Systematic Theology. The book was used in systematic theology classes for many years.
Boyce’s talent as an executive fostered much competition for his abilities. In 1868, the South Carolina Railway Company sought Boyce for its presidency, a position that promised a ten thousand dollar salary. Though this offer was extraordinarily attractive, Boyce declined it. Numerous colleges and universities also sought Boyce’s administrative gifts. In 1874, Boyce’s alma mater, Brown University, requested that he become its president, but he refused. He was thoroughly convinced that nothing he could do was more crucial to the gospel than his devoted service to the seminary. He had set his hand to the plow. Until death, he would not turn from his life’s work.
Boyce labored long in Louisville until illness drove him to seek recovery in Europe in 1888. Though his heart lifted in a visit to Charles Spurgeon, his health did not improve. Southern’s first president passed away on December 28, 1888. His legacy lives on to this day.
Sources: John A. Broadus, Memoir of James P. Boyce, Nashville, TN: Sunday School Board, 1927. William Mueller, A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1959.